Many people recall childhood as a time of safety and comfort when mom or dad took care of everything. Eighteen-year-old Lily carries starkly different memories of childhood.
“My dad was hugely addicted to alcohol,” Lily said. “He would promise to work and pay the bills, and he’d have a job for a couple of weeks, but then he would quit or get fired and use most of the money he’d made on weed and alcohol.”
Lily’s childhood was also shaped by the chaos and trauma of homelessness. Her family moved from a northern state to South Carolina when she was 8 years old. In SC, she attended school for a few months until eviction forced her to enroll in a different school. This happened repeatedly. Sometimes the family stayed in a motel, other times with acquaintances or in a shelter.
In the last home the family lived in, the water heater barely worked and didn’t produce enough warm water for Lily and her brother to take regular baths or wash clothes. Lily remembers going to school in dirty clothing and being bullied by other children as a result.
She was a very bright child, but by seventh grade, she was failing most of her classes.
One day the principal pulled her and her brother out of class to introduce them to social workers with the S.C. Department of Social Services.
“I knew right away that they were taking us,” Lily said. “I was anxious thinking about having to live with other kids, and it was scary going somewhere unfamiliar.”
Still, she remembers the first night she arrived at Epworth, the sheer relief she felt at finally being able to take a shower and change into clean clothing. When she was assigned a roommate, the girls found they had much in common and became best friends.
When Lily started 8th grade, girls in her cottage introduced her to other kids at her new school. For the first time, Lily began looking forward to going to school. She also spent time each week with tutors at Epworth’s on-campus Barnes Learning Center. Her grades improved.
“When Lily came as a middle school student, she was quiet and reserved as many children are in a new environment,” recalls Barnes Learning Center Director Christy Mooneyhan. “As she built relationships, her personality began to flourish. I enjoyed days where she would simply stop by my office to say hello or to talk. I knew she felt at home when she would share her frustrations with me and then listen as I offered suggestions or advice.”
Once after she moved to Epworth, Lily’s mom came to see her on family visitation day.
“It was really good to see her…but that was the last time I saw her,” Lily said. “Right after that, she moved out of state and never came to a family day again.”
The same is true of her dad – Lily has seen him only once since being removed from the family home.
“I kind of knew I was never going home,” she said.
As the years passed, Lily made her way through high school. Neither of Lily’s parents had graduated from high school, and Lily had always assumed that she wouldn’t graduate either. But she focused on doing the best she could each day.
“I learned to push through hard moments by staying within the day, within the moment,” Lily said.
She graduated from high school last year, the first person in her family to do so. Not only did she earn her diploma, she earned a special certification in business, even while holding a part-time job to earn spending money.
“I feel like had I not been taken into care and ended up at Epworth, I would never have made it, never graduated,” she said.
Lily has since moved into Epworth’s Independent Living Center, which is a supportive housing program for young adults who’ve aged out of the foster care system.
“Lily worked very hard to earn the business certificate, and I was happy when she decided to apply for our Independent Living Center program,” Christy Mooneyhan said. “She has the ability to achieve anything she sets her mind to, and I believe the encouragement, guidance and support she continues to receive there will allow her to achieve her goals and set her up for success.”
Today, Lily continues to work part-time to save for a car. She just started taking classes at Midlands Tech and hopes to become an early childhood educator.
“I’d like to one day work with kids in foster care or at a place like Epworth, helping kids who are in the same situation I was in,” Lily said.